Andrea Cohen's poetry blends thoughts on science with witty observations
on life, writes Kate Kellaway
Andrea Cohen was, for me, something of an unknown quantity. The press
release accompanying this collection explained that, for her day job,
she writes about marine research at MIT. A quick glance at one poem - a
farewell to her dying brother - explained that he used to be a stand-up
comic, and described the rapport between them. What to expect from her?
Would her poetry be oceanic? Full of jokes? Or fish? Her first
collection won a sprinkling of obscure awards in the US. Best to put the
second on hold? The odd thing was that this was easier to decide than
do: these poems stubbornly refused to be dropped, kept swimming back
into my hands. And with each reading there was fresh pleasure and
growing recognition, and the making, on paper, of a subtle, witty,
sympathetic new friend....
Cohen writes conversational poetry. Her lightness of touch and her lack of self-importance are a tonic. She never travels heavy. Her poems are dominated by the idea of transformation (the outside world is always promising us release from ourselves). At the same time, she acknowledges that this is a doomed project: we cannot give our self the slip. In the delightful "To An Ant Fallen in the Salt Shaker", an ant is on a misguided course, hoping to encounter sugar. Cohen likens this to hoping to embrace sweetness herself:
I too have mistaken it/ for sugar: the bright blizzards are similarly blinding, inviting,/ and once you have an ache for nectar,/ turning back is hard.
Her counselling of the ant is absurd and serious. The blend of gravity and wit comes naturally to Cohen.
A similar fancy is at play in "In a Haystack" (right). This witty poem is set out in a thin vertical shape, so we encounter the idea of the needle before we start to read. She promotes the needle into a character escaping the straight and narrow and swapping steely destiny for the promise of hay - the pull of the wide world. (There is only one word that jars - "skin", which even the most enterprising needle lacks.) But the last lines once again demonstrate her winning sympathy.
In "Explanation of Autumn", her neighbour's son considers transformation in a different sense, cross-questioning her about trees. The poem is casual and chatty, with an amused gleam. And its last verse, with naturalness and grace, takes the conversation beyond its beginnings:
Crossing the street,/ he takes my hand and bends/ my brittle finger back, hungering/ for blood or sap, thirsting/ to understand how close/ to kindling I am,/ how close to ash.
The vainest of all the attempted transformations - playing at God - appears in three separate poems. In "The Beauty of Youth", her little son has a shot at it:
When he is God he learns it's lonely/ at the top
In "The Incomplete Knowledge of Man", she speculates about three workmen:
... gentle Guatemalan Franz who/ whispers to fixtures; greying Fred,/ who specialises in the general;/ and handsome Ray, the ex-rocker/ who says:/ never use another man's ladder.
Of all these, entertainingly conjured, she concludes:
Maybe they're like all god-/ wannabes, afraid of being/ obsolete, needing a world/ in need of repair.
And in "Terrible in Math", it is her turn. Instead of grappling with numbers, she remembers standing on a desk, in her yellow pinafore, "pretending/ to be God". Her maths teacher ticks her off, telling her "hereafter not to/ pretend, but be". It is advice that may not have improved her long division, but it certainly defines her poetry.
In a Haystack
A needle must feel
deeply needled, ill-
suited to its skin,
to leave its arrow-
into a haystack,
to mean to lose
or find itself
in that soft
tangle, to fill
its one good eye
with the gold
filament of pasture,
to the weary,
supper to bell-
A needle like that?
It would be
Andrea Cohen is an award-winning poet and short story writer whose work has been published in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, The Threepenny Review, Glimmertrain, The Iowa Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. An accomplished professional and an experienced academic, Andrea Cohen directs the Blacksmith House Reading Series and writes on the subject of marine research at MIT. Long Division is her latest collection of free verse and is an ideal and recommended introduction for those new to her poetic style, and a welcome update for those previously familiar with her work in her Owl Creek Poetry Prize winning anthology "The Cartographer's Vacation" (Owl Creek Press).
Detective X: Temptation to Believe
Dumbstruck in the awesome
forest, spring leaping up through loam,
fiddleheads unfurling like giddy seahorses
under the green awnings of scotch pines
that don't close shop, one wants
to applaud, to throw or to be
roses, to address a thank-you moat
to those responsible, to imagine
such splendor is never random,
and then, dizzy beneath the cornflower sky,
I apprehend how lost I am.